Monthly Archives: May 2011

Heading in the Right Direction, Part 8: Setting up a Deliberate Practice Program

“Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.”    Henry Ford

You are the teacher and you are the pupil.”   J. Krishnamurti

I have found that many of K. Anders Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice concepts (see part 6 in this series) can be adapted to mapping a personal art journey. The essence of Deliberate Practice for artists is pushing ourselves just beyond what we can currently do in order to take our art to where we really want it to go. Deliberate Practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have, and the acquisition of new skills. Dr. Ericsson’s message is not to rely on repetition and experience to teach expertise, but to deliberately practice the expertise you want to master.

Here are some tips for setting up a Personal Deliberate Practice Program:

Knowing where you want to go is Step 1.

Step 2 is to design a personal set of Deliberate Practice Projects – activities designed to help move your art to where you really want it to go and to aid you in your quest to gain expertise, confidence, and the mastery of new territories. Begin with your list of what you love (see part 2 in this series), your list of things you struggle with – those “missing links” (see part 3 in this series), and the list I mentioned in part 5 in this series. Compile these lists and create a master list. 

Next, break each item on your master list into small and specific actions. The key word here is actions. Try to come up with a list of as many small and specific actions as possible. Because we’re dealing here with things we don’t know, it can be challenging to compile this list. You can find ideas by journaling (see part 7 in this series), by reading art books – especially college textbooks on art, design, and art history (check out the indexes for topics), by looking at art school curriculums, by studying the concepts of major art history styles and movements, by looking analytically at artists whose work appeals to you (not to copy, but to figure out what you’re not getting – what you’re not seeing), by asking a mentor or teacher, by researching specific topics online – to name just a few ways. Another idea that has worked for me is to continually ask good, deep, and hard questions – and to write these questions down in my journal. The act of writing the questions down seems to trigger an unconscious movement towards finding the answers. 

Here is an example of small and specific actions. When I wanted to learn more about value patterns, I read everything I could get my hands on that was written about designing effective value patterns. Then I looked at a lot of paintings by other artists exclusively in terms of how they worked out the value structures in their work. Next, I did many black and white value analysis drawings of other artist’s work. Then, I asked myself how I would have to see my subject if I wanted to create a dazzling value pattern. Next, I worked out many small value pattern sketches using my own subjects. Then I translated some of my black and white sketches into color paintings. These were all small and specific actions. If I put them into a list, the list would look something like this: 

  1. Read and research everything I can find on designing effective value patterns. 
  2. Look at other artists’ work and focus exclusively on how they create dynamic and appealing value patterns.  
  3. Using a black marker and tracing paper, do black and white value analysis drawings of other artists’ work that contains exciting value patterns.
  4. Using my own subject matter, work out a number of different black and white value pattern possibilities for each subject.
  5. Translate my favorite value patterns for each subject into color paintings.

Trying to tackle everything at once, especially when you’re doing it in a painting, can be a recipe for frustration.  David Schwartz wrote, “The person determined to achieve maximum success learns the principle that progress is made one step at a time. A house is built one brick at a time. Football games are won a play at a time. A department store grows bigger one customer at a time. Every big accomplishment is a series of little accomplishments.” 

For an artist, there will always be new knowlege, new skills to acquire, new missing links to uncover, new perspectives, new mindsets, new ways of seeing, new ways of thinking, and new ways of creating. The possibilities for educating your artist self are endless. Each painting we do is an accumulation of knowledge, personal discoveries, and little accomplishments that takes us one step forward on our personal art journey. 

Take some time to compile your lists into a master list, and then start building that all important small and specific action list  – and stay tuned! 

Happy Painting!